Why Are South Koreans Losing Faith in America’s Nuclear Shield?


You have them, so we need them.

This is the basic argument for South Koreans who want their country to develop its own nuclear weapons. It’s about the need to protect against an aggressive northern neighbor that is already a nuclear power and whose leader Kim Jong Un has promised an “exponential increase” in his arsenal.

The counter-argument that has long deterred Seoul from going after the bomb lies in the likely consequences. The development of nuclear weapons would not only disrupt the country’s relationship with the United States, but would likely result in sanctions that could strangle Seoul’s access to nuclear energy. Not to mention the regional arms race it would almost inevitably provoke.

But which side of the dispute the South Koreans are on appears to be changing.

A decade ago, the call for South Korea’s nuclear weapons was a fringe idea that drew little serious attention. Today it has become a mainstream discussion.

Recent opinion polls show that a majority of South Koreans want their country to have its own nuclear weapons program; a number of prominent academics who once shunned the idea have switched sides; even President Yoon Suk Yeol has floated the idea.

So what has changed?

A missile is launched on May 25, 2022 during a joint training exercise between the US and South Korea.

For proponents, developing Seoul’s own nuclear weapons would finally answer the age-old question: “In the event of nuclear war, would Washington risk San Francisco for Seoul?”

Currently, South Korea is subject to Washington’s Extended Deterrence Strategy, which includes the nuclear umbrella, meaning the US is obligated to come to its aid should it be attacked.

For some, that’s enough reassurance. But the details of what form this “aid” might take are not entirely clear. As this age-old question demonstrates, faced with the possibility of a nuclear retaliatory strike on US soil, Washington would have compelling reason to scale back its involvement.

Then maybe it’s better not to ask the question. As Sejong Institute’s Cheong Seong-chang puts it, “If South Korea has nuclear weapons, we can respond to North Korea’s attack ourselves, so there is no reason for the United States to interfere.”

There are other reasons for South Koreans to question their decades-old reliance on US protection. Among them, Donald Trump stands out. The former US President has made no secret of his desire to withdraw 28,500 US troops from South Korea, citing the costs involved and questioning why the US should protect the country. Given that Trump has already announced his presidential candidacy for the 2024 election, it’s an issue that’s still on people’s minds.

“The US is just not as reliable as it used to be,” said Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. “Even if the Biden administration is behaving like a traditional US government and is giving South Korea all the right signals of reassurance … policymakers must keep in mind the possibility that the US would re-elect an administration that would have taken a different approach to South Korea. ”

But the loss of confidence goes beyond Trump.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul on August 17, 2022.

More recently, President Yoon Suk Yeol floated the idea of ​​US tactical nuclear weapons being moved to the peninsula or South Korea having “its own nuclear capability” if the North Korean threat intensifies. Washington’s rejection of both ideas was conspicuous. When Yoon said this month that Seoul and Washington were discussing joint nuclear exercises, President Joe Biden was asked on the same day if such talks were actually underway. He simply replied, “No.”

Following Yoon’s comments, US Department of Defense press secretary Brig. Gen. Gen. Pat Ryder reiterated US commitment to the enhanced deterrent strategy, saying that “to date (the strategy) has worked, and it has worked very well.”

In an interview with the Chosun Ilbo newspaper published on Jan. 2, Yoon said of these guarantees, “It’s difficult to convince our people.”

But in another interview with the Wall Street Journal on the sidelines of Davos last week, Yoon echoed those comments, saying, “I have every confidence in the U.S.’s enhanced deterrence.”

A conflicting message rarely allays concerns on either side of the argument.

On Thursday, the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) proposed what might seem like a middle ground — creating a “framework for joint nuclear planning” that “could help develop stronger relationships of trust between the two allies.” in the current environment.”

This framework could be “similar to a NATO nuclear weapons planning group, with planning conducted bilaterally and trilaterally (with Japan), with control remaining in the hands of the United States.”

But the CSIS made it clear that it does not support “the deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula or condoning the purchase of its own nuclear weapons by South Korea.”

Other experts too, like Professor Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear non-proliferation at the Middlebury Institute in California see joint planning and exercises as “more realistic options than nuclear weapons or nuclear sharing”.

For some in Yoon’s conservative party, that’s just not enough. They see a nuclear-weapon-free South Korea threatened by a nuclear-armed North Korea and want nothing less than US nuclear weapons being deployed to the Korean peninsula.

You seem destined to be disappointed. Washington moved its tactical weapons from South Korea in 1991 after decades of use, and there is no sign it will consider reversing that decision.

“It makes no military sense to bring US nuclear weapons back to the Peninsula,” said Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation.

“They are currently on very difficult to find, very difficult to hit weapon platforms and to take weapons from them and put them in a bunker in South Korea, which is a very tempting target for North Korea, what you’ve done is you’ve lowered your skills .”

This leaves many South Koreans with only one option – and some are losing patience.

Cheong, who recently converted to South Korea and acquired the bomb, believes the advanced deterrence strategy used in dealing with North Korea has already reached its limits and only a nuclear-armed South Korea can avert war.

“Of course, North Korea doesn’t want South Korea’s nuclear upgrade. Now they can ignore the South Korean military,” Cheong said.

“But you have to be nervous (because if South Korea decides to go ahead with the bombing), it has the nuclear material to make more than 4,000 nuclear weapons.”

But it’s not just fear of disrupting relations with the United States that is keeping Seoul from such a course. A South Korean exit from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would likely have rapid and devastating repercussions on the domestic nuclear power system.

“First, the nuclear suppliers group would clip fissile material to South Korea, which relies on outside suppliers for all of its fissile material. It could lead to international sanctions,” said Klingner.

South Korean and US jets take part in a joint air exercise on November 11.  18th, 2022.

Then there’s the regional arms race it would likely provoke, with neighboring China making it clear it will not tolerate such a build-up.

“Chances are that China will be unhappy and will stop at basically nothing to stop South Korea from going nuclear,” said Professor Andrei Lankov, a longtime North Korea expert at Kookmin University.

Given the likely fallout, Seoul might do better to take comfort in the US guarantees it has already offered.

“The 28,500 US troops on the peninsula have a very real tripwire effect. Should hostilities break out between the two Koreas, it is simply inevitable for the US not to interfere. We have skin in it,” Panda said.

Finally, there are those who warn that even if South Korea got nuclear weapons, its problems are unlikely to go away.

“So the funny thing about nuclear weapons is that your guns don’t balance their guns,” said Lewis of the Middlebury Institute.

“Look at Israel. Israel is nuclear armed and fearful of Iran getting nuclear weapons, so Israel’s nuclear weapons in no way offset the threat they feel posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons.”

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